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Wine Geeks' Dot-Com Dinners

Wine fanatics are using the Web to arrange tastings with other obsessives. Internet addict Lettie Teague investigates the world of the "offline."

I was reading about the problem of Internet addiction recently (on the Internet, of course) and discovered there are several danger signs, including: "A significant amount of time is spent in activities related to Internet use" and "The Internet is often accessed more often, or for longer periods of time, than was intended." As one who is guilty of both and more besides, I was pretty much ready to check myself in. (But where? Does Betty Ford have an Internet program?) The fact is, I've been spending too much time lately on wine discussion sites—most notably on wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s Web site, eRobertParker.com. I even attended a few wine dinners, a.k.a. "offlines," I found on its online bulletin board.

Offlines, for the uninitiated, are real-life lunches and dinners planned by users of Web sites like eRobertParker.com, or "ebob." The Parker site houses the Mark Squires' Wine Bulletin Board, which lists wine lunches and dinners in a forum called "Offline Planner." These gatherings take place all over the world and are organized according to the wines to be tasted and the location (for example, Burgundy in Burbank). Most are held in restaurants, although some are given in private homes and it's democratic: Anyone who has the time, money and the right wine may attend.

My first chance to go to an offline came in the form of a lunch invitation from Parker himself. Would I be interested in dim sum and 19 vintages of the legendary Rhône wine Château de Beaucastel? (Which is a bit like Ed McMahon calling to see if he could stop by with a check.) A group was gathering in a D.C. suburb to drink the Beaucastels they'd bought in a charity auction earlier that year. Parker had contributed the wines himself, and the group of about a half-dozen bidders (who'd all met online) asked the Great Donor himself to join them.

"We told Bob we'd meet at the restaurant of his choice," said Mat Garretson, a Paso Robles, California, winemaker and one of the bidders, explaining how the largely California-based consortium ended up opening 43 bottles of great Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a Chinese restaurant in a suburban strip mall. In fact, most of the group had traveled a pretty significant distance to drink wines that included legendary vintages like 1978, 1989 and 1990 as well as eight vintages of the Beaucastel super-cuvée Hommage à Jacques Perrin.

But, as I soon learned, great wine and long-distance travel are commonplace in the offline world. The Chicago-based member of the group, Scott Manlin, a commercial real estate banker, said he'd traveled as far as London and Paris for offline dinners, while Christine Huang, an advertising executive from San Francisco (and the sole female in the consortium), attended offlines around the country during a yearlong work hiatus. "I needed to fly to Atlanta, so some guys organized an offline for the day I was there," she recalled. "I was supposed to fly home that afternoon, but the lunch started at noon and ended at five. Then the guys convinced me to go out to dinner. I ended up staying overnight at the house of one wine collector and his wife." Who knew that attending an offline could mean saving money on hotels, too?

Not that any of the offliners seemed reluctant to spend money; the winning bid for the Beaucastel wines was more than $6,000, after all. And no one attends an offline without bringing some very good (i.e., expensive) wine. Those who don't may find themselves cut from future dinners. And woe to those who try to get away without bringing wine at all. One New York investment-banking executive recalled an offline at New York City's Post House restaurant focusing on Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. "Everyone brought great wines," the executive said, "except one guy who said he'd broken his bottle on the way. We pretty much banned him from all our offlines after that." Justice, it seems, is swiftly served in the offline world.

And seats at the dinners are just as swiftly filled. When I browsed through the listings, looking for a dinner to attend (California cult Cabernets in New York? Washington State wines in Kansas City? Zinfandel in Alabama?), every one appeared to be booked. Indeed, people signed up with such speed that I was shut out again and again. Finally, I appealed to Mark Squires himself. What could I do? "Act fast," he replied. This meant staying online pretty much all the time, including late at night. (Internet Addiction Disorder sign No. 5: "A significant amount of time is spent in activities related to Internet use.")

Ultimately, I found a dinner with an appealing theme ("best of the USA") and a convenient location (Triomphe restaurant, across the street from my office in midtown Manhattan). The negotiated price was a reasonable $110 per person, including Triomphe's corkage charge. In fact, a good corkage policy and a private room are two of the top criteria for picking an offline site, with food a distant third (one potential attendee withdrew, criticizing Triomphe's menu). His scorn, however, scored me a seat; I'd been on the waiting list.

This offline was organized by Brent Clayton, a New York City wine retailer, and held to honor a visiting Australian wine merchant, Gavin Trott, whom everyone at the table seemed to know from his Internet postings. In fact, just about everyone seemed to know everyone else—apparently they not only corresponded but also got together as often as once a month. Everyone brought a bottle or two (anxious to impress, I brought four), the names of which Clayton posted online before the dinner. Presumably this was to avoid duplication of choices, though it also seemed like a good way to ensure everyone brought something worthwhile.

My contributions included a 1996 Robert Mondavi Winery 30th Anniversary Cabernet bottling (sold at the winery only), a 1991 Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet from Australia (I thought Gavin Trott might be homesick) and two Schramsberg sparkling wines, a gorgeous 1994 late-disgorged Blanc de Blancs and a nonvintage rosé.

There were some 30-odd bottles, which were organized into flights, starting with sparkling wine and Chardonnay. Then came Central Coast Syrahs, a "grab bag" flight that included my Wolf Blass (remarkably youthful, with wonderful chocolate-mint notes), California Cabernets and Cabernet blends (1995 Joseph Phelps Insignia, 1997 Peter Michael Les Pavots, 2001 Robert Foley Claret) and Merlots, Syrahs and a few more Cabernets (including an Aussie wine, 1995 Moss Wood, that Trott had contributed). When everyone was asked to vote on the "Wine of the Night" (WOTN in offline parlance), I was torn between the beautifully balanced Insignia and the brilliant Moss Wood—proof that Australia can make great Cabernet.

The group was varied in its selection of favorites, not to mention its assessments of the wines—one attendee found the 1997 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot "ripe with some sheep's arse." I was grateful that none of my wines attracted such comments and that Mark Squires declared my Mondavi his WOTN. It was as if I'd been given a key to the clubhouse. Or at least license to attend another offline.

I went home that night and began the search. I found a promising offline in D.C., a "Syrah vs. Shiraz" challenge with an added incentive: The person who brought the WOTN would get dinner for free. I put my name on the waiting list (already a waiting list!) and went down to my cellar. I needed just the right wine, carefully packed. I couldn't risk a broken bottle. My offline future, after all, was at stake.

Published February 2006
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